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Ciudadanos, the mutating party

The trending political movement is hardly what it started out as, and will continue to change

Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera at a rally demanding equal pay for all law enforcement agencies.
Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera at a rally demanding equal pay for all law enforcement agencies.Enric Fontcuberta (EFE)

An apocryphal version of Wikipedia might define Ciudadanos as a center, liberal, pro-European, reform party even if the orthodoxy of such a definition does not capture the ambiguity of its political position, or the danger of its being a passing trend, or its ability to adapt to its surroundings.

Ciudadanos is not exactly what it once was – an enlightened, cosmopolitan answer to secessionism containing both liberal and social-democratic ingredients. Nor is it now what it will be in the future, precisely because it acts like a mutating party in a permanent state of construction, volatile and exposed to the arbitrariness of a particular time and place. However this is also beneficial to Ciudadanos, to the extent that its good prospects – it is now the top-rated party according to recent voting intention polls – are partly a result of its own merit on issues like Catalonia, and partly the result of its rivals’ own deterioration. It is even caused by a shift in tectonic plates: the crisis of the left-right axis, the sluggishness of conventional parties, the populist threat.

It doesn’t help Ciudadanos when party leader Albert Rivera states that the left-right axis no longer exists

Máriam Martínez-Bascuñán, political analyst

It could be surmised that Ciudadanos would win national elections if these were held right now, in January. But it is unclear whether victory is assured on the scheduled date of 2020. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy would administer time like a lethal weapon, aware that Ciudadanos has become a highly uncomfortable conservative rival – “the Popular Party’s generic brand,” as Pablo Iglesias of Podemos would say – that is also taking votes away from the Socialist Party (PSOE) and even from Podemos itself, acting as a magnet for all kinds of Spaniards who fall within the center of the political spectrum.

“Experts place Ciudadanos in the center (with a slant towards the center-right) of the left-right axis; it also sits in the center of the other axis that articulates European politics: cosmopolitanism versus populism/authoritarianism,” explains Víctor Lapuente, a political scientist.

“Vagueness is the other side of Ciudadanos’ flexibility,” he adds. “Its problem, and that of other European liberal parties (as their unstable fortunes at the polls show) is that they are forced to behave like ‘niche parties’ and focus on a single issue – immigration, the EU, territorial issues – in order to carve out a space among the big parties. There are few cases, even if these are as relevant as Emmanuel Macron, where a liberal option is able to articulate a complex platform that could serve as a serious governing option.”

The Catalan branch of Ciudadanos, under local leader Inés Arrimadas, was the most voted party at the regional election of December 21.
The Catalan branch of Ciudadanos, under local leader Inés Arrimadas, was the most voted party at the regional election of December 21.Zipi (EFE)

France’s Macron has, in fact, become a role model for Spain’s orange party: a movement, rather than a party; a charismatic star at the helm; and a hybrid reform program whose adaptation to Spain would require the PP and PSOE’s funeral – without forgetting that Ciudadanos’ recent victory at the Catalan elections, where it was the most voted party, was a result of tactical voting in a very specific context.

“When the political scene is marked by polarization, by a highly emotional rhetoric and by an over- simplifying talk of ‘a single nation,’ you are creating an adversary, and whoever manages to represent that adversary, that is the party that will secure the biggest advantage,” explains Máriam Martínez Bascuñán, a professor of political science at the Autonomous University of Madrid and author of Populismos.

“Ciudadanos has managed this because it has secured the political position that represents the ‘hurt’ portion of the population that has been left out of the ‘single nation’ championed by [ousted Catalan premier] Carles Puigdemont. When you forcibly create an ‘us,’ you are simultaneously creating a ‘they.’ In the end, there are only two sides in the conflict, and that’s what has happened in Catalonia.”

Vagueness is the other side of Ciudadanos’ flexibility

Víctor Lapuente, political analyst

In a Darwinian sense, Ciudadanos is not the strongest party, but it is the one that best adapts to the situation, even when such a transformation requires, as it did, renouncing all social-democratic content in favor of liberalism. Francesc de Carreras, a professor of constitutional law and one of the original founders of Ciudadanos, says that the party’s model should be explained better in order to dispel voter misgivings about its liberalism.

“There is a misunderstanding with regard to Ciudadanos’ economic model that the party has not been able to clear up,” he says. “I don’t think it is proposing either a wild neo-liberalism nor an interventionist model; rather, it wants to encourage competition in each sector in order to stimulate the economy more efficiently and improve the functioning of the welfare state’s institutions.”

There is no ambiguity in the party’s vision of the state, or in its opposition to special fiscal privileges enjoyed by a few regions of Spain. Ciudadanos has led uncomfortable social debates on issues like immigration, gender violence and the pension system, but it has also indistinctly supported two different candidates to the prime minister’s position: the Socialist Pedro Sánchez, who failed in his bid, and the conservative Mariano Rajoy, who was successful.

“It doesn’t help Ciudadanos when party leader Albert Rivera states that the left-right axis no longer exists,” says Martínez Bascuñán. “It is worse to belong nowhere than to claim a center position for yourself; if you are neither left-wing nor right-wing, you might turn out to be a technocrat. Creating that ideological central space could work much better. If Ciudadanos decides to go for a “neither this nor that” ideological position, combined with a strong Spanish nationalism and trouble recognizing this country’s diversity, it could end up flirting with populism.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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